Sorry

“I shall pass this way but once. Therefore, if there is any good that I can do, or kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now. For I shall not pass this way again.”

Long Hair pauses after his recitation. “Do you know that one? I really like that saying. I read it in the preface of a book. Do you know it?”

I do. It’s from some Quaker minister, I think. The launching pad for 1,000 Sunday sermons in the United States heartland. But I haven’t heard anyone recite it in decades. This is why I come to Hong Kong: to be reminded of all the small, everyday commonplaces of my own culture. There are so many things about America that Leung and his friends remember and hold in their minds and hearts; things that I have completely forgotten.

Why is Leung waxing poetic after midnight over bad red wine at Club 71? A silly question for anyone who has been in Hong Kong for the past few days, watching as disgraced knights of local politics fling themselves publicly and noisily upon their swords with bitter remorse. Blood is flowing down every gutter, and the tortured, cat-like wails of mea culpas rise from the twisted alleys of Hong Kong’s darkest night of the soul.

The Democrats have lost.

Leung quickly corrects me: “The Democratic Party has lost, not the pan-Democrats.” He’s right. The pan-Democrats did pretty okay, all things considered, in the District Council elections. Their opponents had all the time and money and workers, plus the added edge of being the “pro-Government” party. If you want a district councillor to help you get your sidewalk fixed, or your rent lowered, who would you rather have working for you, a guy who’ll be kept twiddling his thumbs outside the office, or a DAB member who can walk right in and pull some insider strings? The game is stacked, just the way Beijing likes it. And yet, despite it all, the pan-Dems held on to 93 seats versus the DAB’s 115.

Leung’s LSD acquitted themselves well, held on to 3 seats and added 3 more. The Democratic Party (that is, the Man Jyuh Dong), on the other hand, took a blow, and lost 38 seats, a third of their districts, including some incumbent seats. Now their leaders are tripping over each other to apologize in public.

In Cantonese, the concept of “sorry” is even harder to get a grip on than Cantonese’s shifty and slippery thank you. There are a lot of ways to say sorry, depending on what kind of sorry situation you’re in. The simplest, most low-key Hong Kong apology, the thing you might say, for instance, if you bump into someone on the street, or accidentally trip over someone’s foot while trying to get out of a packed MTR is easy to remember. The most commonly used Cantonese expression on the streets of Hong Kong is straight out of English: sorry.

If you want to sling your “sorry” just like a Hong Kong native, pronounce it with a high tone on the first syllable, descending to a low on the second syllable (and remember to slur the “r” into a slight “l” sound). Also remember to spread the word around a lot more liberally than you might in a less polite and population-dense place. Hong Kong is a city in which you can never be too sorry.

Now here comes the fun part. See the guy sitting on the MTR, the one with the foot poking out in the aisle? He is clearly negligent and rude, hogging four extra inches of space that obviously belong to you, the unfortunate straphanger without a seat. But when you trip over his offending big foot, sorry is the word that should immediately emerge from your lips. Say it loudly, and draw out that first high syllable archly, and he and everybody else sitting in the car will understand that your “sorry” is the Cantonese word for: “Hey, you stupid pook gaai, get your lazy fat foot out of everybody’s way!”

The borrowed-from-English “sorry”, however, is not a deep enough expression of regret for the more serious and embarrassing social situations. For that, you have to dip into the next Cantonese level of sorry, deui ‘m jyu and m’hou yi si.

The first sorry, deui m’ jyu means, literally, correct-not-stay. But the meaning, as used, comes closer to the written Chinese version of this colloquial expression, which is 對不起 , “correct-not-rise”.  A deui m’ jyu is an expression of personal responsibility to another person. I’m not correct here, I let you down. I don’t know if I can face you.

Sorry Number Two, m’hou yi si is a bit lighter, a sorry not of shame but of politeness. Its literal meaning is “bad intention,” and it is usually brandished on occasions that involve an improper action, some social misstep on your part. (You can also use it before you make an intentional misstep, as a polite way of preparing people for it). You show up late for a meeting? M’ hou yi si. You accidentally forgot to respond to an invitation? Blurbed out something in conversation that embarrassed everyone because it was inappropriate and/or ill-timed? M’hou yi si (But if what you spilled to the group was a remark that hurt a particular friend, you owe that friend a deui m’ jyu).

Clearly, now is a major deui m’ jyu moment for a lot of Democrats. And Long Hair thinks this is deui, proper and correct, as it should be.  “Albert Ho should resign. Frederick Fung was right to resign,” Leung says. “They failed. They didn’t work hard enough in the district level.” (Leung faithfully spends each Monday evening behind a folding desk in Tai Wai for hours as his thousands of constituents petition him with problems, schemes, and, in once case I observed, a paper bag full of shit. He has no reason to deui m’jyu.)

Here’s the Leung Kwok Hung take on what the results of the District Council Elections mean: “The poor people are the ones who come out faithfully and vote in the district council elections, and they vote to take care of themselves. Because the poor people are the ones who may need the district councillor’s help. If the middle class person has a problem, they will hire a lawyer, or write a letter of complaint. They don’t need someone to translate an English document, they can take care of it themselves. But the people with no recourses look to their district councillor. And the DAB has money to put its people in the districts doing that kind of work full time. So of course the grassroots people will all come out and vote for them in district council elections, while a lot of the middle class will just sit home and not vote. That’s why the DAB could win in districts that have lots of pro-Democracy support.”

“But those sit-on-hands voters will come out and vote for Legislative Council, because they want political representation. And this defeat in the district elections is the best thing that Anson Chan and the pan-Democrats could hope for in the elections. It will mobilize pan-Democrat voters on Hong Kong island.”

Long Hair falls silent. Even the alley cats in the lot across from Club 71 have gone to sleep, it’s after 1am. I wonder what he’s going to say next–and I know there is something unspoken hanging in the stillness. I’m sorry, Long hair, m’hou yi si, bu
t I gotta ask this:

What about you? You’re up for election next year. You won on the coattails of 2003, the anti-Tung movement. Now Tung Chee Hwa–in large thanks to you–is history, a fuzzy memory. The middle class, happy in their economic bubble, may sit this next one out, or vote for the squeaky-clean barristers of the Civic Party. The disgruntled civil servants may vote for someone else. Doesn’t this worry you? What are you going to do?”

He leans back and shrugs his shoulders. “What can I do but what I am doing? At the end of the day, the people will decide. And if they reject me–well, they are the voters. The golden rule of democracy, of universal suffrage, is that you have to accept the result. Even if the people give you George Bush. Twice. The government may be bad, or doing something you don’t like, but the principle of democracy doesn’t change. You have to honor the will of the people, no matter what.”

This is what Beijing doesn’t get. Or Bush and his Republican cronies. They want democracies in which they can fix the game, in which they can control what happens before it does. But of course, these are not real democracies. It is the tragedy of our century that this is the kind of “democracy” that is replacing the one that men dreamed about and fought for hundreds of years ago.

Like I said, I come to Hong Kong to remember what I’ve forgotten about America.
 

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